Tuesday, October 20, 2009

1947 - The Year Push Came to Shove

In 1938, the USA had no troops on foreign soil, no military alliances and roughly 150,000 men in uniform. . By 1959, the US would have 1400 foreign bases in 31 countries and by 1989, 1.5 million troops spread across 117 countries. It might be worth taking a look at how that came about and where it started.

George Kennan had fired the opening ideological salvo of what would come to be known as the Cold War with his "Long Telegram" in early 1946.  A series of diplomatic crises had erupted later in that year and each crisis was in turn supported by harsher and harsher rhetoric regarding engagement of the Russians.  These events would culminate in the unprecedented US support for the Greek government in the Greek Civil War.

Athens 1945

The Greek Civil War
Then in February 1947, Britain announced that they were pulling out of Greece, where they had been supporting a repressive monarchy and battling  left-wing insurgents since 1944.  Britain was flat broke and they could no longer afford to maintain their presence and operation there.

Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg told Harry Truman "You need to scare the hell out of the American people," and Truman obliged him, creating what has come to be know as "The Truman Doctrine."  Dean Acheson appeared in front of Congress in 1947 and called the situation in Greece "Armageddon."  Congress coughed up an unprecedented four hundred million dollars in aid for the Greek monarchy.

As George Herring points out in his magisterial "From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Policy since 1776, the actions the US took in Greece would set the tone for many future conflicts.  The US misrepresented what was going on in Greece, ignored the domestic roots of the insurgency and the authoritarian nature of the fascist regime and exaggerated the role of the Soviets.  They then presented the stakes as being the fate of the free world.   The conflict would result in the death of a hundred thousand people with five thousand being directly executed by the Greek government.  Eight hundred thousand refugees were created. 

The National Security Act of 1947

This led directly to the creation of the National Security Act of 1947, which drastically reshaped American foreign policy.  Truman told the cabinet, "This is only the beginning..." and truer words were never spoken.

This act had three major components: the formation of the National Security Council, the creation of Central Intelligence Agency and the integration of all of the American armed forces under the Department of Defense.  This was no mere bureaucratic change: the US was establishing a permanent peacetime internationalist security apparatus, an astonishing change from what had existed prior to World War Two.

The Soviets and the Communist Conspiracy

At the close of World War 2, Stalin had three main objectives: 1) establish dominion over eastern Europe in order to maintain a buffer zone protecting Soviet borders; 2) wreak vengeance on Germany in partial compensation for the 27 million Soviets who died in WW2 and 3) establish control over Iran's oil fields and the Turkish straits in order to give the Soviet navy access to the Mediterranean.

Stalin was completely successful in the first objective, partially successful in the second and failed utterly in the third.

The Truman administration viewed virtually all global political events as a contest between the Soviet Union and the United States.  They saw communism as a massive worldwide conspiracy controlled by Joseph Stalin in Moscow and they interpreted every regional conflict as some diabolical machination of Stalin to extend his control over the world.  

This perception, while perhaps understandable in light of the uncertainties of the post-war era was frequently simply wrong. 

The Greek communists were receiving support from communists in Yugoslavia, but the Soviets were not involved.  Moreover, the Greek monarchy was a brutal, corrupt and repressive institution that probably needed overthrowing. 

Unfortunately, the Truman administration had no lens to view this situation other than the one that George Kennan had provided.  Communism was a monolithic force that must be stopped, no matter what.  This led the decision-makers to misinterpret the available data and more importantly, to miss opportunities that would present themselves because they were unable to see beyond the very narrow paradigm that they had locked themselves into.

Framing Errors. Sticky Memes and Cognitive Bias

Recent cognitive science research has confirmed what poets and artists (not to mention politicians) have known for millenia - the human mind craves narrative and loves a story.

To put it another way, we have an innate cognitive bias for the creation and protection of simple narrative schemas that help us understand objective reality.  The most successful works of art and the most successful politicians are masters at exploiting this.  Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell explored these ideas in detail in the 20th century and recent work in neuroscience comes at it from the opposite side but reaches many of the same conclusions.  The Hero's Journey.  The Hero and the Villain.  The Victim and the Victimizer. 

As humans, we are suckers for these types of simple narratives.  Unfortunately, George Kennan's Long Telegram established just such a narrative - itt was very simple, very compelling and almost impossible to amend once it had been established in the minds of the policy-makers, even when the data suggested that the paradigm was wrong.  Sticky memes persist even when there is no data to support them because they appeal to us  on a very basic level of our neural processing..

The persistence of Kennan's narrative would have extremely grave implications for subsequent American foreign policy decisions.  It would cause the US to ignore friendly overtures from both Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh in the 40's and 50's, to misunderstand nationalist movements from Iran to Guatemala and to create the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever known,

Relevance to Today
So, who cares?  The Cold War is over and the US won.  That's the way that particular narrative wraps up.  

In fact, it's highly relevant to today because as we look back on the Cold War era, we can see very clearly how these framing errors caused us to radically misinterpret the available data.

Today, the US is engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The policy decisions that led to these wars are beyond the scope of this essay.  However, the issue of the "framing of the narrative" is highly relevant.

Wars that started with highly specific goals (i.e., find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, destroy Al Qaeda's base of operations in Afghanistan) have morphed, at least in the minds of some policy-makers, into a much larger conflict against "Islamo-fascism" and at least in certain quarters, against Islam itself, which is viewed as a diabolical and monolithic entity much like the "international communist conspiracy" was two generations ago.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The "Other" Telegram - from Frank Roberts

Both Kennan's and Novikov's telegrams are widely known and much discussed.  Frank Roberts is much less so. Before getting into the details of Roberts telegram, let's take a moment and think about Britain's position at the end of the World War Two.

The above photo from the February 4, 1945 Yalta Conference is one of the more famous images of the 20th Century.  Looking at it 64 years later, what immediately jumps out at one is a simple question: what is Churchill doing there?

The simple facts of World War Two were that, for the most part, the US paid the heaviest price economically and Stalin paid by far the heaviest price in casualties.  Winston Churchill had pulled off one of the greatest political coups of all time.  Churchill had kept Britain in the game and at the table of power, as it were, long after Britain had ceased to be a major player.

The US had surpassed Britain economically in the 1880s.  The Boer War had been the turning point for Britain, accelerating the decline of the British Empire and World War One had effectively bankrupted the country. Post World War Two concessions would remove most of what remained of the British Empire and Britain would be displaced fully and permanently by the USA, which stood as the lone superpower in the post-war years. 

It was in this extremely dynamic atmosphere of post-war realignment that Roberts found himself writing the Foreign Office about how to handle the Soviets and his telegram has to be viewed in that context.

The Frank Roberts Telegram
Roberts was the British charges d'affaires in Moscow in 1946 and his telegram went out shortly after Kennan's.  Although there were many commonalities between the two documents, Roberts focused more on the constructive aspects that Kennan had only vaguely alluded to in the last few paragraphs of his document.  Roberts also called for British support of democracy and civil rights:
"At the same time we can offer civil and political liberties which are unknown in the Soviet Union and which would be the envy of its inhabitants... There is no chance of us seizing the initiative unless we are prepared to back some political doctrine as an alternative to communism.  The obvious choice is social democracy, but if we were to do this we might not commend ourselves to the Americans."
Reading this 63 years later, one is struck by how dead-on of an analysis this really is.  Britain was the odd man out at Yalta and was in the process of divesting its empire and retooling its society into the social democracy mold. Although Roberts' superiors back in London were arguably as fiercely anti-communist as Kennan's in Washington, the simple fact was proposing any kind of military counter-measures was simply out of the question for Britain in 1946.  Roberts makes many of the same points as Kennan (and indeed, Novikov), but he does so while simultaneously hedging his argument with statements like the following:

"Soviet Russia has reached a similar stage in development as revolutionary France when the First Empire had become solidly established.  Although Soviet Russia intends to spread her revolution by all possible means, world revolution is no longer part of the programme."

The difference between Kennan's and Roberts' telegrams is subtle, but I would contend, significant.  Both Kennan and Roberts believed Stalin to be a paranoid with malevolent intentions towards the West but Roberts suggested that it might just be bluster that could be better manipulated economically and politically than militarily.

For an in-depth discussion of these events, see A.W. Brian Simpson's "Human Rights and the End of Empire" from Oxford University Press.

The full text of the Roberts telegram is here:


Roberts was present at Yalta and some of his quite interesting recollections can be found here:

An excellent site of original Cold War documents can be found here: